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June 20, 2019

An Ode To Landour

Text by Mala Vaishnav. Illustrations By Shounak Jog

Built by the British in 1827, Uttarakhand’s colonial gem, Landour, home to mighty oaks, cedars and deodars and more recently cerebral celebrities from the plains, is where Mala Vaishnav stops to smell the rhododendrons…

There is an area in suburban Mumbai called Four Bungalows. The uninitiated and new to the city are usually disappointed when they discover that the four identical structures do not exist anymore and were last seen as a cluster during the days of the Raj. Landour’s (also an old British preoccupation) Char Dukan, a group of four vintage stores that nudge each other amiably in the environs of the 1834-built St Paul’s Church, has however, withstood the turmoil of time. Essentially grocery suppliers, all four double up as outdoor eateries with no more than a few tables and chairs. At one such, Anil’s Cafe, six of us share a divine apple-cinnamon pancake that almost flips itself from pan to plate. Someone asks for bun-omelette and while sipping honey-lemon tea, much favoured in these parts, we watch a van being divested of a bunch of cameras and cables. Apparently, the location of the 7,000-foot-high minuscule hill station — tucked deep in the Garhwal range of the Himalayas — is no deterrent when it comes to film shoots.

Landour, named after the Welsh town Llanddowror, is a song that sings to its own tune. There is a melody that wafts on the breeze though not everyone may hear the same music. Deodar trees and rhododendron bushes rustle in the canopied wooded paths; the faraway peaks emit wispy white loops in the sky; pine cones drop to the ground rhythmically; multicoloured prayer flags flap and flutter atop actor Victor Banerjee’s villa; tiny squirrels skitter away from bored langurs…. What has kept Landour safe from ecological predators is the Cantonments Act of 1924 that has bequeathed the proprietorship of all trees to the Indian Army, thus protecting them and leaving no room for new construction.

The area is trekking heaven, with dizzying killer paths, one of them winding towards Lal Tibba, the highest point four kilometres from Mussoorie’s city centre, where the Himalayan range flaunting the majestic Chaukhamba and Nanda Devi unveils its grandeur on a mist-free day. The 300 (at least) species of birds, including migratory ones from as far away as Siberia, would probably captivate birdwatchers here, we observe, as a rapidly moving line of pheasants flies just above our heads.

In what is considered to be the peanut butter capital of India, post the purchase of the food processing machines left behind by American missionaries, Prakash’s Store, at the evocatively named Sisters Bazar, is a haven for the ubiquitous spread. We also spot fig jams, apricot preserves, cheddar and gouda, all locally produced, seducing the tourist and the well-shod students of the neighbouring Woodstock School. Ivy Bank, a bunch of semi-detached rooms where we unpack our suitcases and strolleys for five days, is home to rustic Garhwali breakfasts exuding the flavours of the season, tossed to perfection by the resident khansama whose pride and joy is his repertoire of stuffed parathas and aromatic dals.

Essentially a tiny colonial offshoot of Mussoorie, Landour’s narrow, steep lanes can leave you embarrassingly breathless but we quickly master the art of the climb, imitating the swag of the locals who sprint up and down in a zig zag manner. One such ascent is up a deep-red staircase leading to the home of author Ruskin Bond, the poster boy of Landour. He is unwell, we are told, but will sign our books. Individually addressed, if we just care to scribble our names in pencil.

How does he make it up and down that staircase, we wonder. “With caution,” replies his friend Hugh Gantzer, one half of a writer duo whom we visit in his quaint family home where he lives with his professional partner and wife, Colleen. The house Ockbrook, nestled in the embrace of clumps of blooms and monumental trees, is chock-a-block with hardbound tomes, sepia family photos, stately carpets and a birdhouse populated by chirruping lovebirds. Over frosted chocolate cake and wafer-thin sandwiches, we are regaled with stories of yore till darkness falls and we make our way down a ramp-like descent with the help of our mobile phone torches.

We return to our cottages in a shawl-swathed huddle to find a bonfire being tended by the cook. It is 9 p.m. and lights-out time for the little cantonment. In the distance, a raucous Shammi Kapoor number floats in the wind from someone’s radio. Like I said, Landour sings, but this song, we all can hear!

FAR AND AWAY
Hit the road to Kanatal, past Dhanaulti and lunch at The Terraces, a mountain resort with a view that wows.
Lighten the wallet at Himalayan Weavers, eight kilometres from Mussoorie, which supports vegetable dyes and tribal artistry.
Let the taste buds explode with firecracker fish and sticky toffee pudding at the historic Rokeby Manor.
Get measured for made-to-measure colourful leather chappals from the shoemakers on Mullingar Hill.

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